Interview: Benjamin Zephiniah, Revolutionary Minds
- Credit: Archant
Poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah is appearing at this month’s multicultural WOMAD festival in Charlton Park, Malmesbury – a glorious mix of artists from all over the globe... A globe still full of racism, sexism and poverty; but together, he tells Katie Jarvis, we can change it for the better
Once, Benjamin Zephaniah tells me, when he was young, he lay asleep in a flat on the outskirts of Birmingham, and a guy came to the door. This man was armed.
So was Benjamin.
The scene is so vivid – a film flickering across the back of his mind – that he describes it in the present tense.
“I’m sleeping in the bedroom,” he says; “there’s a gun underneath my pillow. There are some people after me; my boys are after some people. One of my friends had got killed. But, then again, one of my lads had killed somebody else.”
And – as if looking at a mirror in a mirror; an endless series of reflections – he remembers lying there, remembering. Remembering a scene from when he was even younger – 13; still not thrown out of school, yet – and a teacher saying to him, “You are a born failure. You’re going to end up dead or doing a life sentence.”
“And I remember lying there, thinking: I’m close to it now.”
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He’s telling me this because I’ve asked him: Why? Why it is that he’s famous and respected; an artist; a poet included in a Times newspaper list of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers alongside people such as Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, and JRR Tolkien.
Yet why – how? – did that happen, when he could so easily be serving time now, just like a mate of his he bumped into during a prison visit recently, each a different side of the bars.
(Like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like a ghost from A Christmas Carol.)
It was easy, he says. He simply lay there thinking: I’m a dead man or a lifer.
Neither particularly appealed.
“You know what I did? I woke up the next day; got in a car, and went to London. I tell school-kids this when I’m talking to them. I’ll say, ‘I went to London and started hanging out with another gang!’
“And they go ‘Ooooh!’ [in shocked tones]. And I go, ‘But it was a gang of poets and painters!’ And they all start smiling.”
And that, people, is how Benjamin Zephaniah turned from Borstal to bard and has never looked back.
What strikes me, as we talk, is this: How remarkably easy life-changing, in-your-face, life-saving decisions can be.
Yep, the big decisions are easy-peasy. He’s had no problem turning down big record deals and multi-novel contracts. Or becoming a vegan. Or saying no to the Big Brother house.
“I’m not rich but I’m never going to starve,” he says.
“You could be a lot richer, though...”
“I could be. But I’d rather do art that says something and means something; and if it only means something to a few people, including myself, so be it.”
So, no. Big decisions aren’t a problem for Benjamin Zephaniah. By contrast, though, in his latest album, (Benjamin Zephaniah – Revolutionary Minds), it’s the smaller decisions that take centre-stage.
Tiny decisions that equally shape a corrupt and unjust world.
“I’m going to say something that’s really petty and personal,” Benjamin Zephaniah says - (in fact, I love the way he illustrates his points with perfect anecdotes) – “but my oil has gone in my house; I’ve lost my heating somehow. And I was talking [to a neighbour] and I said, ‘It’s so difficult to be off-grid. We’ve got to use one oil company or another, but who do we choose?’ I always feel slightly unclean dealing with them.”
He’d love to be without a bank account – managed it for years while living a semi-itinerant life as a performing poet – but nowadays? Pah. Just try it.
So this is his compromise:
(Benjamin Zephaniah’s answers are never quite what you’d expect.)
He’s organised his own funeral.
“People don’t understand that you can be buried in your own garden, as long as it’s six foot away and six foot down. I’m not being buried in my own garden; I’m being buried in the forest. But, for me, it was about the people I’d leave behind – taking it away from them.
“And just thinking that the cost of living is bad enough. But the cost of dying? Feeling exploited, even as they’re being put in the grave, is something I want to avoid. Please!”
Benjamin Zephaniah will be performing his latest album – along with his band, The Revolutionary Minds – at WOMAD this month. Tbh, if you read this album’s lyrics without listening to the music (and there’s really no point in my trying to sing it all to you), you’d end up wanting to stick your fingers in a socket without even fully researching the ethics of your electricity supplier.
• Over 1 million children die each year as a result of diarrhoea
• Millions of women spend several hours each day collecting water
• Of the 774 million illiterate adults, two thirds of them are women
• More than 60 million girls forced into marriage before age of 18
But the music! It adds joy, fun, upbeat rhythm. A strange hypnotic chant, in some cases; a reggae beat, in others. The words say: My god, this is a grim place! The music says: Hey, peops, so let’s revolt! (There’s a great Howard Zinn quote in there.)
There’s something similar going on when he relates to me an appalling example of racist mental and physical abuse. But, somehow, in the middle of it, we’re both laughing. Not because there’s anything remotely funny about it; but because his attitude is so forgiving and extraordinary.
We’re talking about how much worse racism had got since Brexit – “For the first time [in years], I’ve had racist things said to me on the street: Go home, n*****r.’ ‘The Eastern Europeans are going – you’re next’, kind of stuff” – so much so that he’s put a brake on doing panel programmes such as Question Time.
“I remember the first ever racist attack I had,” he tells me. “I was walking down the street and a guy came up behind me on a bicycle and slapped the back of my head with a brick – you can imagine the momentum - and a big crack came in my head. And he went, ‘Go home, you black bastard.’
“And poor innocent me. I went home to my mum and told her, ‘He said, ‘Go home!’ and I’ve come home, so what’s his problem?’
“And I just kept going, ‘What’s a bastard, mum? What’s a bastard?’ It was that that bothered me. I was trying to work out what a bastard was.”
He laughs. And I do, too. But it’s not a straightforward laugh.
“I was eight and my mum had to explain to me that there were people who didn’t like black people in the country. And I was going, ‘What? Mum, I really like white people.’”
How upsetting for his mum, though, I say. To have to disabuse such innocence.
“It was upsetting for her but my mum was of that generation of Caribbean women where it was just, ‘We’re guests in this country – put your head down.’ And that’s where me and my mum parted – not physically – but I said, ‘Mum, I was born in this country and I feel that I should have the right to walk on any street. The right to make friends with anybody’. And I knew that white people, for want of a better term, they came here, too. The Angles and the Saxons. We all came here from somewhere.
“’Isn’t that good, mum? Isn’t that great!’”
The other day, he sat next to another self-confessed racist. What he didn’t do – this Benjamin Zephaniah – was to pick up a brick. He used, instead, his weapons of choice. Words.
“When I told him about my life, and he told me about his, I went, ‘See how much we’ve got in common, brother’. And he was like, ‘You’re right, man! The people who’ve been oppressing me are the same people who’ve been oppressing you.’
“And I go, ‘Yeah, that’s right! That’s why they want to keep us divided’. He told me he’d believed one political party, and then he was a UKIPer; and then he was a this and then he was a that. But he always wanted to blame somebody.”
Nail on the head, Benjamin. Nail on the head.
Because – now I think about it – the one thing Benjamin Zephaniah doesn’t do is blame anybody. What Benjamin Zephaniah – poet, musician, writer, thinker – does is to act.
“That’s what politics does more than it should,” I say to him. “It keeps us apart rather than pulling us together.”
“And that’s what music and politics and art do – pull us together,” he says, in return.
“Thank god we have people like you,” I say, thinking of that brick. Of those taunts in the street. “Britain is lucky to have people like you. So’s the world.”
“I try my best. I do my little bit. That’s all I can do, really. But look, my mum said I’m a very naughty boy. It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m a naughty boy.”
But we’re always naughty to our mums, I say. Whether we’re racists or politicians. Or extraordinarily forgiving, free-thinking, radical revolutionary poets.
• This year, WOMAD is celebrating its 35th year in the UK; it takes place from July 27-30 at Charlton Park, Malmesbury. Book tickets here.